Charting a dangerous course: the fallacy of Charter School superiority

By Worcester School Committee member John Monfredo

Throughout our city much has been said recently about the Charter School movement and its impact on our kids. Worcester will have its third Charter School: the Massachusetts Department of Education has approved the “Spirit of Knowledge Charter School.” The school will house students in grades 7 to 12 and classes will begin this September with 156 students in grades 7 and 8. While charter schools provide an alternative to other public schools, they are part of the public education system and are not allowed to charge tuition.

The general purpose of the Charter School program is to establish an alternative means within the existing public school system in order to provide innovative learning opportunities to improve the education of students.

There has been a great deal of controversy regarding the effectiveness of charter schools and whether they give additional benefits to students. A study performed by the American Federation of Teachers, which strongly supports charter schools, found that students attending charter schools do not fare any better or worse statistically in reading and math scores than students attending public schools. If one looks at the number of Charter Schools state-wide and looks at the research, you will find that Charter Schools are more expensive, more segregated and do not offer a better education to children.

Charter Schools are in competition with the traditional public schools and parents need to examine what is being offered and how will this school benefit your child. I believe that a “buyer beware” attitude is essential as you examine the recently approved model for Worcester.

Worcester Public School Superintendent Melinda Boone spoke at the Charter School hearing in Malden re: whether a Charter School should be approved in Worcester. She said, “I’m not fighting the existence of Charter Schools … . Parents ought to have quality choices. My concern is the Spirit of Knowledge School is not a quality program – it has leadership issues and because I don’t think they substantially meet the requirement of ensuring diversity and ensuring equity of access for all children and parents who may be interested.”

Dr. Boone, WPS Chief Financial and Operations officer Brian Allen, Mayor Joseph O’Brien, City Councilor Kate Toomey, School Committee member Tracy Novick and I testified at the hearing as why this particular Charter School would not benefit Worcester.

Members of the Worcester delegation supporting a “NO” vote spoke about the many flaws in this proposal and the reason why the school is not needed in Worcester. Many felt that the timing was not justifiable, due to the lack of financial resources and what is proposed already exists in the Worcester Public Schools. The Worcester Public Schools are already operating at a significant financial disadvantage, and the establishment of another charter will cripple the school’s budget even more.

As stated by Dr. Boone, the director of the newly formed Charter School, Julia Sigalovsky of Sudbury, was the administrator at the Charter School Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlboro – and was fired from her position last year. The issue of leadership and the firing of Ms. Sigalovsky were also reiterated by City Council member Kate Toomey. Councilor Toomey asked the board to question whether her leadership is a good fit for our city, for according to many public documents and newspaper articles she was fired by her own board of School Trustees. Councilor Toomey read a quote from Metro West Daily News dated May 8, 2008: “School trustees recently voted not to renew her contract as executive director … it intends to hire an executive director with more school administration experience.”

… Mayor O’Brien also reemphasized the question whether if the Spirit of Knowledge does have a commitment to an urban population. He spoke about Governor Deval Patrick’s promotion of Charter Schools stating that the education reform act passed authorized a targeted lifting of Charter School gaps in the Commonwealth’s lowest performing school districts allowing only these operators with a proven record of successfully serving high need students. He went on to say that this application from the Spirit of Knowledge fails the Governor’s stated criteria and that this school fails the intent of the law and does not have a proven record of serving high needs students. He spoke about the lack of leadership and that the leadership is far from proven. He emphasized that the Marlboro Charter School and the Spirit of Knowledge model not only failed to help close the achievement gap – it barely educated any high needs children.

When I addressed the board I attempted to point out that the new Education Reform Act was recently passed, and our school system is in the process of initiating change by creating potential Horace Mann Charter Schools and Innovation Charter Schools within the Worcester Public Schools.
The Spirit of Knowledge has as its mission to graduate students with a solid academic foundation in Math, Science, and Technology and to prepare them for a college and a gratifying career. My testimony centered on duplication of these services. Spirit of Knowledge talks about the rigor in their curriculum, but the Worcester Public Schools already has a rigorous curriculum, with more and more students engaged in Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

We have also involved our WPS students in dual-enrollment courses with our area colleges and have formed many partnerships with our colleges and universities. We have a very successful AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination) as we reach out to students in the middle. AVID works with students who are capable of completing rigorous curriculum but are falling short of their potential. They are given additional assistance. In many cases, these students will be the first in their families to attend college, and many are from low-income or minority families. Again, our school district has had a partnership to help finance this program by partnering up with Hanover Insurance.

Next, let’s look at the Worcester Science Academy at WPI, for this program attracts those students interested in a strong science and math program. The Academy is a public, state-wide magnet school which enrolls about 100 academically accelerated 11th and 12th graders. The rigor of the junior year classes exceeds high school honors and AP, with more than 1,200 hours of instruction. Seniors complete a year of college, taking the same classes as other students at WPI, thus making the Academy the only public school in Massachusetts whose students attend a fulltime university as seniors in high school.

Where is it located? Right here in Worcester!

I urged the Board to review the Engineering Pipeline at Doherty High School and see the science and math connection at work. I urge you to go to North High School and see the Worcester Pipeline Collaborative that was initiated in 1996. It brings together UMass Medical School, UMass Memorial Health Care, area colleges, and biotech industries such as Abbott Laboratories. The purpose of the Worcester Pipeline Collaborative was and has remained building a “pipeline” for students from groups under-represented to work and see the opportunities that exist in the health field. This program has been a model of success.

I asked the Board to visit the Goddard Program at Sullivan Middle School and at South High School where students excel in a most rigorous curriculum. The Worcester Public Schools created this separate Magnet School Program, where anyone in the city can apply, and is more rigorous than honors. Students must take five AP courses and maintain a B average.

Next I asked the Board to visit Worcester Technical High School, for this state of the art building is a good example of students being able to learn a trade and still maintain academic success. As with many of our schools, WTHS has a large free- and reduced-lunch population, yet 65% of them are college bound and the balance ready for success in the workforce! The senior class has more than 50 students receiving the John and Abigail Adams State Scholarship.

The track record of Worcester Technical High School has students entering a variety of technical programs at a number of colleges throughout the country. My question to the board was: Can the “Spirit of Knowledge Academy” do better? …

Brian Allen asked many important questions, i.e, how the Commissioner could recommend a charter school to the board with a planned 25% drop out rate? The Spirit of Knowledge Academy Charter School proposal shows the year 1 grade 9 enrollment of 52 students and four years later the Grade 12 enrollment of 39 students. He asked, “How does the school explain this 25% drop out rate?”
He then answered his question with the following statement. “Quite simple, the school does not plan to serve students that lag in their academic achievements; those students will be returned to the sending district. It appears, as documented in the letter of support from the Worcester Regional Research Bureau that the target student is academically gifted, and if this is so, the actual target student directly conflicts with the school’s statement need.”

Again, this is a duplication of services, for Worcester students are well served by academically gifted programs whether through the Worcester Public Schools or the Math-Science Academy at WPI.
Mr. Allen, an expert in finances, stated that the proposed school will spend 1 out of every 3 dollars on non-instructional expenses. The school will have 13.5 non-instructional and administrative staff for a school with less than 600 students. As the State looks at ways for greater school consolidations to save money, how can the Commonwealth afford diverting nearly $2million from instructional cost areas to support a new administrative cost structure?

Sadly, those questions and other questions raised by the group were not answered. In addition, any questions asked by the board members were answered by members of Commissioner Chester’s office. Why did they not ask representatives from the Spirit of Knowledge to address those issues brought up by our Worcester delegation? This was a real flaw in the process.

In addition, Dr. Boone, after the first hearing in December, sent a booklet of letters supporting the position of the Worcester Public Schools. The package included letters from parents, community partners, students and staff. Unfortunately, Commissioner Chester’s office did not give the board the booklet until the day before our hearing. One has to wonder if they had the time to read the information sent. On a 6 to 2 vote, the board supported the Commissioner’s recommendation, despite what we said at the meeting.

It was a long shot in attempting to change the mindset of the board. I believed that after the Commissioner’s office approved the school this past January, our going to the board was going to be a difficult task.

In hindsight, we needed to have a “full court” press at future meetings by bringing in our State Legislators, parents, students, and the community. Many times numbers work in impressing the parties involved in a decision making process. That should not be the case, for the application should have been reviewed on its merit. I don’t believe that it was.

In the long run, this will cost the Worcester Public Schools money from our depleting budget. On the other hand this should serve as a wakeup call for us to examine what we are doing in public education. We need to realize that competition and choice are here to stay. Have we done a good job marketing our system and what are areas that need changing? Have we asked parents what is it that we need to do to continue to make the Worcester Public Schools the school of choice? Public education is no longer the system that it was 20 years ago for it is essential that we reach out to our parents, the consumers, and inform them why we want them to enroll their child in the Worcester Public Schools.

As a system we have a great deal to offer our students, but we need to articulate that to the public. We need additional marketing strategies about what we have and the successes going on in our schools. We need to reach out to real estate agents and give them more facts and figures about our schools as they discuss with future buyers why they should live in our city. Our public schools need to have the mentality of private schools and realize that there is competition out there – and show why we want parents to enroll their children in our schools.

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